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How to cancel Christmas (your guide to a truly sustainable festive season)

Yes, I’m talking about Christmas already. But not because I’m planning to spam you with lists of stuff you honestly don’t need. Instead, I wanted to raise the idea of cancelling Christmas – be it the whole thing, or simply the parts that make you stressed, poor and miserable.

The thing about cancelling (or toning down) Christmas – which is why I’m bringing it up now – is that you need to do it early. There will probably be some difficult conversations to have and choices to make, and if you have a plan in your mind and have set your boundaries, you’ll find it a lot easier, I promise.

Now I’m not here to tell you that you should cancel Christmas. I’m here to offer you an alternative to the status quo, and talk you though the steps that I took.

Christmas is a non-event for me. I stopped the gifts, the decorations, the excess food, the waste and the stress of it all at least six years ago. For me, Christmas is a quiet, peaceful (and inexpensive) time of year and I love it.

Every year around this time I like to counter all the ‘sustainable things to buy for him / her / them’ gift guides and ‘zero waste gifts for your boss’s wife / dog / second cousin’s goldfish’ posts by talking about how we can go about December WITHOUT BUYING ALL THE STUFF and working ourselves into a frenzy.

Cancelling Christmas might sound a little extreme, but like most things, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Even if you’re not up for cancelling Christmas entirely, there are probably aspects of the holiday that you’d like to let go of (or at the very least, tone down).

This is your permission slip to let the stressful, consumer-driven, wasteful, expensive, unfulfilling and unsustainable parts of Christmas go.

Getting started with ‘cancelling Christmas’

The first thing to do is decide which aspects of Christmas you’d like to cancel. It might be the entire thing, or there might just be certain aspects that you dislike. You might like to just do away with the expensive, stressful and wasteful aspects of the festivities.

(For me, cancelling Christmas is not the same as boycotting Christmas. Cancelling is more like opting out, whereas boycotting is actively avoiding Christmas. Boycotting is a lot more work. I might go to Christmas drinks with friends, or eat a mince pie, but more in the spirit of spending time with people whose company I enjoy and indulging in good food than ‘being Christmassy’. I cancel the parts I don’t want to engage in, and I make exceptions.)

To decide which aspects of Christmas you’d like to cancel, take some time to think about what Christmas means to you, which bits bring you joy, and which bits bring anguish.

(You may love Christmas baking or decorating the tree with your family. You may hate going to your cousin’s Christmas party with all the single-use plastic, processed food and your racist uncle, or find the office tradition of buying ‘novelty’ gifts for everyone in your team a little wasteful.)

Action step: write a list of all the Christmas activities and traditions you’re expecting to have this year, and divide them up into ‘things you love’, ‘things you’re ready to cancel’ and ‘undecided’. You can do this alone, or with your family – whichever you think will work best.

Those things on your ‘ready to cancel’ list are your starting point.

Start making alternative festive plans now

Hoping Christmas will go away by ignoring it until Christmas eve (when you realise it hasn’t gone away, and panic purchase a bunch of things) is not a good strategy. Instead, you need to be thinking about this stuff early. The sooner the better.

The first part of making alternative plans is thinking about what it is you don’t like about the existing plans. From there you can decide if there are alternatives that might work better or be a compromise. (I’m not saying you have to compromise, but you might prefer to ease in gradually, especially if your family is less than convinced.)

I also found it helpful to distinguish between what I actually liked and wanted to do, and what I felt obligated to do. If I’m going to celebrate Christmas, I want to come from a place of joy and not a place of obligation or guilt.

Action step: have a think about the following categories, and decide what aspects of each you like and what you don’t like, and how you could make them better (or whether you can do without).

  • Decorations;
  • Food;
  • Gift wrapping;
  • Gifts.

If you’d like some ideas for low waste options for Christmas, you’ll find this post helpful.

Make your rules and set your boundaries

The next step is to make some rules around your Christmas celebrations this year. They might be rules just for you, but more likely there will be rules (let’s call them requests, it sounds less forceful) that you need others to hear.

You might decide that you’re only giving gifts to children this year, and not adults; you might decide that you’re cooking a vegetarian Christmas dinner rather than trying to cater for everyone else; you might decide to only buy second-hand gifts and nothing new; you might decide something else entirely.

Action step: when you’re thinking about your rules, it’s really helpful to think about your ‘why’. What is it about the current situation that you find stressful and why do you want to change? You might have spiritual reasons, environmental reasons, mental health reasons, financial reasons, a mix of a few different things or something else entirely. But knowing why you want to create change will enable you to have better conversations, and also keep you motivated to stick to your rules.

Have some awkward conversations

When it comes to gifts especially, you’ll need to speak to those people you are expecting to give to you (or members of your family). But there might be other things you need to speak about, too. The sooner, the better.

It will probably be an uncomfortable conversation, and can go two ways. On one hand, they might be relieved and pleased to know there’s less expectation, pressure and expense. On the other hand, they might be outraged.

There will probably be a bit of confusion too – why not? What changed? It can be helpful to explain your ‘why’ – that stuff/waste/running around/ spending all your money/trying to do it all makes you anxious, you already have what you need, you’d rather they save their money, Christmas isn’t about the stuff…

If there is a lot of resistance, you might want to discuss compromises. (Then again, you might not!) Compromise a a good way to ease into the shifting of ‘tradition’ and expectation. If ‘no gifts’ is too brutal, maybe a secret Santa arrangement (where a pool of people only buy one gift for one person, rather than for everyone) or some rules around certain types of gifts (no plastic! only second-hand! etc) or choosing experiences instead.

Action step: have any difficult conversations that you need to, but try to make them two-way conversations and not one-way lists of demands. Express your wants and needs but listen to concerns too and try to find a joint place of understanding.

Expect resistance (change never comes in a straight line)

Just because you’ve set some rules, it doesn’t mean that others will follow or respect them. It can be helpful to have a back-up plan – what you’ll say and what you’ll do if people disregard your choices.

Shaking up Christmas can be a big deal for some people, and they may resist. It is my experience that it takes a few years to bring everyone to the party. What helps is sticking to your principles.

For example, you ask for no gifts, and you receive a bunch of stuff you don’t need and know you won’t use. I’m not sure you need to be overly gracious (although you don’t need to be rude). If you have clearly stated your rules and set your boundaries (no gifts, thanks) and someone has just stomped all over them, that’s on them, not you.

You can be polite, and say that you appreciate the gesture but you did clearly ask for no gifts. If that’s too hard (it’s very hard!) you can be polite, say nothing, and make a plan to gift them or donate them as soon as possible.

(I am wary of keeping things when I’ve specifically asked for nothing, as I don’t want to undermine my own rules and reinforce to the other person that they were in fact right. It might be easier in that moment, but it’s not helping in the long-term – and there are a lot more Christmases to come. Here’s a guide to donating unwanted Christmas gifts.)

You might only mention that you donated those unwanted gifts a few months later, when there’s less pressure. It might be that you don’t bring it up until the following Christmas, but these conversations need to happen, and to keep on happening, if you want to create change.

Action step: without overthinking things too much, give some thought to some of the stumbling blocks and how you might be able to deal with them. Having a back-up plan can be helpful.

Don’t be afraid to experiment

Don’t be afraid to try things. It’s okay to give things a go and change your mind. If you cancel Christmas and decide it’s no fun at all, you can ensure next year is the funnest yet. You can go strong this year and soften things up a little next year, if need be.

Sometimes breaking the traditions you’ve held for years can be helpful in deciding which bits you actually do enjoy (and miss).

Now I’d love to hear from you! Which bits of Christmas do you love, and which bits are you ready to cancel? Have you already started cancelling Christmas – what did you do and how did it go? How have you adapted over time? Any advice to add? We’d love to hear your thoughts so please share in the comments below!

5 Tips for Letting Go of Unwanted Christmas Gifts

Before you even say it, no. It is not too early to be talking about what to do with unwanted Christmas gifts. If we don’t talk about it, those gifts will be shoved in a cupboard, where they will languish untouched for months, forgotten and unused.

What a waste of resources!

The best outcome for these gifts is that they are needed, wanted and well used.

If you or someone you know received a gift that they don’t want, it is much better to find someone who needs it rather than stuffing it into storage.

The Reasons We Hang Onto Stuff We Don’t Need: Guilt and Fear

Is it ungrateful or rude to pass on a gift that’s unwanted? I don’t think so. No-one asks for gifts they don’t want and don’t like. The gifter may have had the best intentions, but on this occasion, they got it wrong.

We all make mistakes and misjudge things sometimes. That’s just how life works.

It was still kind and generous that they gifted something, and the meaning is in the giving, not the actual object.

But when it comes to letting go of the gift, we can feel guilty.

We feel guilty that they made a poor choice.

We feel guilty that we weren’t clearer about our dislike of hot pink, or the fact we actually went vegan 7 years ago, or the fact that we already own every single cookbook/novel by that author.

We feel guilty that they wasted their time, or money.

The thing is, all of this is about the past. The gift has already been purchased and gifted, and we can’t turn the clocks back. Whether we keep something or give it away won’t change the fact that the gift was a poor choice.

The difference is that keeping something reminds us of this, every time we see the item. Letting something go will let go of this guilt.

Finding new owners for our unwanted things is a great way to alleviate the guilt we feel about parting with stuff – it is hard to feel guilty when you’re bringing joy to someone else.

When it comes to letting go, we can also be fearful.

Fearful that the gifter will find out, and we’ll be judged.

Fearful that if we’re found out we will be seen as ungrateful and maybe not be given gifts again.

This fear is about something that hasn’t happened yet. It may never happen. Is it really a genuine cause for concern, or if it comes true, will it actually be slightly uncomfortable for a very small window of time?

Fear and guilt are not reasons to keep things we don’t need.

Think about it from your own perspective. How would you feel if you knew that a gift you’d purchased for someone was unwanted, disliked and would never be used? Would you rather the person kept it out of guilt or fear, or would you rather they passed it onto someone who loved it?

To Tell or Not Tell?

There’s no need to tell the gifter you don’t like the gift and you’re passing it on, if you don’t want to. If you think it will upset someone, or you’ll feel judged, there’s no need to mention it.

Most people won’t ask what became of the gift, but if you’re worried about that, have an answer at the ready.

If the gifter told you that they kept the receipt in case you want to exchange it, consider that an invitation to tell them that you’d like to exchange it. Obvious as that seems, it can be an awkward conversation, and one we prefer to avoid. But the fact they mentioned it means they’d rather you had something you actually liked than try to protect their feelings. If this option exists, don’t shy away from it.

On the other hand, you might prefer to tell the gifter of your plans. If they were wildly wrong with size, style or taste it may be helpful to say so.

If you put clear boundaries around the gifts you wanted and didn’t want, and these boundaries were trampled over (oh, I know you said only second-hand gifts but these plastic trashy items from the big box store were such bargains!) then it can be helpful (and rather satisfying) to explain your decision. It will also help clear up future misunderstandings.

Don’t forget, if they have no way to know you didn’t like the gift, they may continue to gift in the same spirit.

There’s no right or wrong answer to this. Do what feels right (or easier).

Options for Letting Go of Christmas Gifts

Take it back to the Store.

Some stores will let you exchange items even without a receipt over Christmas, so it is worth asking. Call ahead before you make the trip to double-check. The item will need to be still tagged and unused. You won’t get a refund, but if you simply want to switch size or colour, or swap for another product it is probably the lowest hassle solution.

Sell It.

Online auction platforms like eBay and classifieds platforms like Craigslist and Gumtree are great for listing items for sale from the comfort of your own home. Decide a price you’re happy with, take a few pics, and wait for a buyer. There are also marketplaces on social media for finding interested buyers.

Donate It.

Rather than dump your unwanted gift at the closest charity shop along with all the other unwanted gifts, consider giving the item away by other means. Charity shops are overloaded at this time of year, so it might be better to donate to an organization that will use the item, rather than resell it. For example, a homeless charity might accept sleeping bags and blankets, a refugee centre might take small electrical appliances, women’s refuges might take cosmetics and personal care products, and a food bank will accept food items.

Ask yourself, who might want what I have?

You can also give items away on online classifieds platforms, you can give away via local neighbourhood networks such as Buy Nothing groups, and you can regift – if you think the person will want the item.

If you’re worried about being judged for passing on unwanted Christmas gifts, donating them to a worthy cause can help. It might be a lot easier to say you donated something to an animal rescue centre or hospice than it is to say you sold it on eBay.

That’s not to say one choice is better. As long as the item ends up in the hands of someone who will use it, it is a good outcome.

Letting go of something we don’t need, don’t want and don’t like; it doesn’t make us ungrateful or selfish. It doesn’t make us greedy (if we decide to sell it). Stuff shouldn’t have that kind of power, and it only will if we allow it to. The best thing to do is to pass the item on. Out of sight, out of mind.

Difficult things become easier, and guilt will pass.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What do you do with unwanted gifts? Any additional tips? Do you struggle with guilt? How has this changed over the years? Do you find it easier now than you used to? Any other thoughts? Share all in the comments below!

30+ Ideas for a Low Waste Christmas

If you don’t want to cancel Christmas, but the thought of all the excess wrapping, plastic decorations, gifts that end up in the charity shop within weeks of Christmas day and fighting all the food waste fills you with dread, today’s post is for you. Because it is possible to have a low waste Christmas, I promise.

That said, I’m not the best person to talk about Christmas. Because I probably would just cancel it ;) So today’s post is a collaborative effort brought to you by the recent participants of my recent WASTEless course. Together we brainstormed ideas for how to have a low waste Christmas.

As the participant who suggested the Christmas topic said:

“I want to try to be as zero waste this year as possible, but it’s tricky with packaging/wrapping/decorations. But I also don’t want to be a Grinch, haha!”

Okay, so I will be the first to admit – I pretty much am the Christmas grinch. I don’t do decorations, I don’t do gifts, I don’t do Christmassy foods, and I’m happy with these choices. I like my so-low-key-you-wouldn’t-actually-know-it-was-Christmas approach.

But I realise that it’s not for everyone.

If Christmas is your thing, but not putting too much stuff in the bin is also your thing, there are plenty of solutions. Here’s the result of 20+ people putting their heads together to come up with ideas for a low waste Christmas.

Low Waste Christmas: Decorations

Reusable Decorations: avoid anything with this year stamped across it, because less than a week later we flip over to a new year, and those decorations are instantly worthless. Whilst most of us intend to use decorations again and again, that doesn’t always happen. If buying new, pay attention to what they are made of, and avoid anything that looks like it will break easily.

Think about how you’ll store them between Christmases, because 11 months haphazardly chucked into a box and shoved to the back of a cupboard might not do them any favours. Storing in lidded containers (old plastic containers, or storage tins) will keep dust out and help protect things.

If choosing fabric, consider if it is machine-washable. Fabric bunting or cotton hanging decorations can be cleaned easily, whereas felt and faux fur is harder to clean.

Christmas Cards: if you receive Christmas cards, hang them over string and use these as bunting-style decoration. After Christmas, cut out the images and use to make decorations of gift tags the following year. (Store them in a tin.)

Solar lights: if you want to light the place up, solar lights might be an option. Candles (beeswax or soy rather than paraffin) add a Christmassy glow to things and are a more natural alternative.

A Real Tree in a Pot: a real tree in a pot can (in theory) be used again and again each Christmas. For the most sustainable option, don’t restrict yourself to the “standard” pine Christmas tree, look at what is suitable for growing in pots, and what is suited to your local climate. Different pine trees will suit different conditions.

If pine trees don’t really grow where you are, consider a different type of plant altogether. You can hang baubles off of any tree with branches. Figs, yuccas, whatever you have and suits where you live.

Driftwood / Pallet Tree: if you’re creative, you can make a tree out of driftwood or other materials. For a slightly less labour-intensive approach, paint a tree onto a surface (e.g. a wooden pallet). Pinterest has heaps of ideas.

Decorating the Furniture: instead of having a tree, use your furniture to make a shrine to Christmas, and decorate that instead.

Sticks, flowers, cones and leaves: natural decorations are plastic-free and biodegradable, and the more local the better. If you can forage your own, excellent; alternatively go to a florist and find out what is in season where you live.

Low Waste Christmas: Food

Just Enough: Probably the biggest challenge at Christmas, when we want to have extras and be prepared for unexpected visitors. Meal planning can help with this. Be realistic about how much people will eat.

Also, try to choose dishes that will keep well as leftovers if there ends up being too much. Leafy salads and BBQ prawns won’t keep past a day, however a dish of roasted veggies or a grain-based salad will last a few days. Pavlova won’t keep more than a couple of days, whereas Christmas cake will literally last for months. Mix up your dishes so you don’t have a race against time to consume it all in 48 hours.

Buy from Bulk Stores: if bulk stores are an option for you, embrace them! As well as general groceries, bulk stores sell plenty of snack foods that usually come overpackaged in plastic. Bring glass jars or old Tupperware, and fill up, packaging free.

Make It Yourself: foods made from scratch don’t come in plastic. Plenty of food can be made in advance so there’s no need to end up overwhelmed and panicked with no food ready on Christmas eve. Christmas cakes and puddings can be made a good month in advance, and some foods (sausage rolls, pastries and even veg dishes like braised cabbage) can be made in advance and frozen. Decide what kinds of foods you’d like to have, then take some time to look up how easy they are to make, and decide what will work with your timeframe and energy levels.

Making one thing is better than making no things!

Reusable Containers: if you’re going to be cooking up a storm on Christmas day, or you like to pre-prepare lots of food so you can avoid cooking for the rest of the week, reusable containers are a must. Most things keep better (and last longer) in sealed containers. Make sure you’ve got plenty of glass jars, Pyrex, yoghurt pots, Tupperware, or whatever you storage vessel of choice is.

Use Leftovers: have a plan for your leftovers. Think of meals that could use up excess (e.g. risotto for meat, patties with leftover veg). Ensure you use up the stuff that will go off first, and then use up the things that will happily sit in the fridge for a few more days. Worst case, if making meal plans overwhelms you, commit to freezing your leftovers and make a plan once they are safely frozen.

Freeze leftovers: lots more things can be frozen than people realise. Cheese, dips such as hummus, roasted veggies, cooked meat, cake – all common Christmas leftovers – can all be frozen. Freeze what you can and eat up what cannot be frozen first. With frozen foods, it can help to label and date the items you freeze, and put a reminder in the calendar to check in and make a plan to use it up once the holiday period is over.

Avoid Individually Wrapped Foods: if you do decide to go down the packaged route, try to choose items with less packaging and avoid things that are individually wrapped or completely overpackaged. They will cost you more and fill your bin with waste!

Low Waste Christmas: Gift Wrapping

Last Year’s Gift Bags / Paper: if you had the foresight to save last year’s gift bags and paper, use these this year. It’s always worth pulling all the Christmas stuff out of the cupbaords and seeing exactly what is there before going to buy new. If you use a lot of wrapping consider trying to salvage the best of this year’s packaging for use next year (assuming you have somewhere practical to store it).

Tie with Ribbon / String (No Tape): if you want to avoid sticky tape, tie parcels with ribbon or string (both of which can be reused). Washi tape is a paper-based sticky tape alternative if tying is a bit too tricky to master.

Decorate with Nature: to jazz up brown paper or newspaper parcels, use nature. Holly or pine cones work if these are seasonal where you are, cinnamon sticks look Christmassy and are easy to find at bulk stores, and rosemary is an easy find that looks (and smells) good.

Newspaper: if you receive a newspaper at home or at work (or you know someone who does) then make use of this to wrap presents. Another alternative is Who Gives A Crap (or other brand) toilet paper wrappers.

Brown Craft Paper: brown craft paper is a glitter-free, embellishment-free wrapping option that is much easier to recycle than many types of Christmas paper, and it can also be reused if unstuck carefully.

Furushiki: the Japanese art of wrapping items in cloth. The cloth can be scrap fabric, a scarf, a tea towel, or whatever it is you have. There are lots of great tutorials online.

Nothing: does the present need to be wrapped at all? That depends on what it is, how it is packaged already and who it is for. There might be no need for further packaging.

Low Waste Christmas: Gifts

Thoughtful Gifts: the best gift is the one that the recipient will actually use. Buying ethical reusables just because that is what we like might not be appreciated by friends and family;, and presents that end up in the bin or sitting unused are not eco-friendly. Put some thought into what the recipient will actually use, want and like.

Food Items (Purchased, Cooking or Baking): everyone eats, so food is a pretty safe bet for gifts. At its simplest, filling a jar of treats from the bulk store is a good gift. If cooking or baking is your thing, Christmas is a great time to get creative. Be mindful though of making items that need to be eaten immediately – Christmas is the time of year when everyone buys too much food, so adding extra food items with tiny shelf lives to another person’s pantry might not be the best idea.

Choose things that will keep for at least a week, or tell people that you’ll be making dessert as their Christmas present in advance so they can plan around it. Alternatively make a “voucher” and say what you’ll make and when (e.g. a chocolate cake in the first week of January).

Books: books are great Christmas gifts for people who love to read. It is often possible to find second-hand books in great condition.

Second-Hand: second-hand is a much more zero waste option than buying new, and second-hand doesn’t have to mean old, tired or worn out. Whether it’s antique furniture, vintage jewellery or accessories, preloved clothing, refurbished electronics or simply something great you found in the charity shop, gifts do not need to be straight off the production line.

Plants and Terrariums: plants are another great Christmas git idea, whether it is house plants, veggie seedlings, filled planter boxes or fruit trees. Terrariums (a sealed glass container with plants inside) are an easy DIY with a glass jar and some plants.

Experiences, Workshops and Memberships: I’m a big believer in experiences over stuff. Tickets to an event, a workshop, lesson or class, a show or performance all make great no-waste gifts. Membership to a theatre, zoo, fitness club or gallery, ditto. They don’t need to be formal either: something as simple as organising a picnic or dinner is fantastic way to spend more time with the people who are important to you.

Charity Gift Cards and Donating to Charity: Charity gift cards are gifts that go to people in less economically developed countires, via the person you “gift” them to. You buy a goat for someone in Africa, and your gift recipient receives a card telling them this is what you’ve done. One of my course participants, Karen, told us that every year she buys (literally) a pile of poo for all her family and friends. It’s one of the gift card options offered by Oxfam. If novelty gifts appeal to you but waste definitely does not, this pretty much nails it.

If you want to do away with the cards altogether, you can make a donation to charity in lieu of gifts, and tell everyone that is what you’ve done.

Secret Santa for Family Gifts: If the prospect of every family member getting a gift for every single other family member overwhelms you (and you can’t bear the thought of all the excess and waste), a Secret Santa can reduce the burden. Names are put into a hat, and each person gets one name – the person they buy the present for. Some people do this for adults only; other families with lots of nieces and nephews might choose to put families into the hat.

The upside of this (aside from the reduced financial strain) is that if there is only one present to buy, it is much easier to put thought into it, and find something that is suitable and appreciated. 

Regifting – January (White Elephant Parties): One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. We all end up with stuff we’d prefer not to have, and an entertaining way to swap gifts with friends is to host a gift reswapping party – also called a White Elephant party. In short, everyone brings one gift which are placed in the centre of the room. The first person takes a gift, then the second person can either “steal” that gift, or take their own. It continues until everyone has a gift.

I’ve never been to one, but friends have and it’s amazing how stuff gets swapped and exchanged with people who will actually use it. I think it is a much more effective idea than taking this stuff to the charity shop, which is what the other 7 billion people on the planet will be doing come Boxing Day – and no-one is buying novelty Christmas gift items in January.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What are you planning to do to keep Christmas low waste? Do you have tried-and-tested things that work, or are you embracing some new ideas this year? How has your Christmas evolved over the years for the better? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!